ANALYSIS: Marco Rubio Creates 2-Man Race, but Late Attacks May Not Stall Trump Train

Marco Rubio comes out swinging, even if it might be too late.

ByABC News
February 25, 2016, 11:13 PM

—HOUSTON -- A candidate at tonight’s Republican debate in Houston was called a fraudulent, lying huckster who bankrupts companies, hires undocumented immigrants, makes clothes in Mexico and China, hides his tax returns and would be “selling watches in Manhattan” if he hadn’t inherited a fortune.

And Donald Trump? He chastised a former politician for using the F word on television. (Trump only called one rival a “choke artist” and another a “basket case.”)

A frustrated Republican establishment finally saw its leading candidates take on Trump, boldly and directly. The charge was led by an energized Sen. Marco Rubio, and seconded at times by an against-the-ropes Sen. Ted Cruz, who together represent the GOP’s most realistic options around Trump.

Rubio prosecuted the most effective case against Trump, in part, by flipping the script on him around a memorable episode from New Hampshire.

Trump wasn’t answering with details of a health care plan – “You’ll have so many different plans” – when Rubio sensed an opening.

“Now he's repeating himself,” Rubio said.

Trump reminded him of the debate from early February: “I watched him repeat himself five times four weeks ago.”

“I saw you repeat yourself five times four seconds ago,” Rubio countered.

Rubio unloaded on Trump the contents of an entire opposition-research book. There were mentions of Trump clothing lines, the defunct Trump University, his past support of liberal positions on immigration and health care, and his use of undocumented workers from Poland. (“Google it. Donald Trump, Polish workers,” Rubio said.)

It was a clear attempt to get under Trump’s skin, and it seemed to work at times. But the attacks might have been more effective spaced out a bit – and if they had flown with similar ferocity starting last summer, before Republican voters started buying what Trump was selling.

There were flashes of the old Trump, insulting a questioner for having “very few” listeners, saying Rubio sweats so much it looked like he just came out of a swimming pool, taunting Cruz to “swing for the fences” in attacking him on stage.

“This guy’s a choke artist, and that guy’s a liar,” Trump said, referring to Rubio and Cruz, on his right and on his left. “Other than that, I rest my case.”